By Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt (Guest Contributor)
In the summer of 1474 (only a few months after the acclamation ceremony I described in my earlier post), King Fernando met with miserable failure on the battlefield. Upon returning to the court, according to the chronicler Juan de Flores, his wife, Queen Isabel, delivered a scathing harangue: “Using the courageous words of a man rather than those of a fearful woman,” she upbraided Fernando. She said that as news reached her of the outcome she “had sat in the palace, with an angry heart, gritted teeth and clenched fists.” She berated his temerity and weakness.*
Despite the fact that there are at least five contemporary chronicles of the monarchs’ reign, this account of the queen’s anger only appears in the one by Juan de Flores. Only one other comments on Isabel’s emotional state, saying simply that she was saddened by the loss.
We should ask ourselves, then, what image of the queen does Flores’ account create? At first blush we might think that he is criticizing her. What right did she have to speak to her husband like that? Conduct manuals of the day cautioned wives—even powerful ones—to be silent, circumspect, and obedient. Curiously, Flores may thwart this dilemma by endowing her with manly attributes. And he doesn’t limit himself to descriptions of Isabel. In fact, this assertive Isabel is consistent with his portrait of another forthright personality of Isabel’s day, Beatriz de Bobadilla. Beatriz, due to her husband’s illness, had periodically administered the city of Segovia. According to Flores, she performed the necessary tasks “like a very discrete man and woman” and with a “shrewdness more intense than women customarily possess.” Like Isabel, Beatriz conducts herself in a masculine fashion.
Flores’ contemporaries would have seen in his portrayals of Isabel and Beatriz familiar images of what they called a mujer varonil or manly woman. It was also how a fifteenth-century Spanish biography described the cross-dressing warrior Joan of Arc. This gender-bending category praised women not for feminine virtue, but for the transcendence of their womanly nature (perceived as weak) and the assumption of male qualities. Thus, Isabel’s anger is not a liability, but rather an indication of her strength.
* All translations are my own taken from Flores’ Crónica incompleta de los Reyes Católicos.
Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt is Professor of History at Cleveland State University. She writes on the history of gender in Europe between 1400 and 1700 with an emphasis on Spain, queens, and convents.
This post first appeared at Wonders & Marvels on 27 October 2011.